Blindfire (2020)

Blindfire opens with text claiming that it is “based on actual events”, and an audio recording of a distressed man on a 911 call threatening to kill his own wife at his Los Angeles home address – which he duly supplies over the line. We then cut to LAPD officer Nika Wilkins (Sharon Leal) mocking the choice of her patrol partner Will Bishop (Brian Geraghty) to have chicken on his taco. “Don’t fucking judge me,” Will says, as the two – one black and lesbian, the other white and heterosexual – goad and josh each other in the way that only close friends can.

Yet the rest of this feature will challenge viewers precisely to judge Will, in an unfolding sequence of events where things go awfully wrong fast. Answering a police callout to this violent domestic dispute, Will and Nika are first on the scene, and despite being informed that the suspect is “armed and hostile” and told to wait for backup from a SWAT team, they hear a man shouting and glass breaking, and Will rashly races alone to the back of the house with his gun drawn. A man emerges with a broken bottle, a shot rings out (the ‘blindfire’ of the title) – and by the time Nika has caught up with Will, he is trying to put handcuffs on the bleeding, dying Andre Hughes (Chiké Okonwo) as Andre’s young daughter Lucy (Genesis White) looks on screaming.

“You did good,” Sergeant Ward (Jim Beaver) will tell Will during the debrief – but then, as the smoke clears and the evidence mounts, it will become increasingly obvious that Will did not do good, and that this ‘hero’ has killed an innocent man, leaving many lives (including his own) in ruins. For Blindfire first shows us the kind of incident – white police officer kills black man – that has become all too depressingly familiar from the recent, heavily mediated cases of (e.g.) Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement which has built up around them. Yet writer/director Michael Nell first shows us this incident from Will’s point of view, before carefully deconstructing it with a series of other perspectives presenting a Rashomon-style mosaic of an event more complicated than it first appears.  

There is the perspective of loving father, husband and respected football coach Andre, who never quite knows what hits him at the end of a perfectly ordinary evening spent with his daughter. Later we will meet the privileged teenage gamer (Sam Ashe Arnold) whose swatting actions, conducted remotely from another state as a thoughtless prank, have devastating consequences for others whom he does not even know. Yet as Will cuts out his already estranged wife Jan (Bethany Joy Lenz) and launches himself into investigating what led to Andre’s death, he will prove unable to let himself off the hook for his own link in a chain of tragic events.  

All these interconnecting narratives, linked by radiating themes and masterful match cuts, show a nation at odds with itself and unable to look in the mirror. A situation in part beyond his control may have conspired against Will and brought about his and others’ downfall – he may even, in his way, be a victim – but Blindfire refuses to lionise a man who, though in the wrong place at the wrong time, still breaks rules and acts recklessly, still shoots first and asks questions later, and still terminates another person with extreme prejudice. Will is neither simplified nor demonised, and even if he does harbour deep-seated fears of otherness, and a combative attitude towards those with whom he deals, the systemic racism that he embodies does not reduce him to some drooling, one-note caricature. Will knows that he has, at some fundamental level, done the wrong thing, and his willingness eventually to face the consequences rather than, as is expected, to close ranks behind the thin blue line, is ultimately what marks him as morally answerable for his actions. Arguably in the end, if not at the beginning, he ‘did good’ – but he knows that nothing of course can make up for the life that he has helped take away.

Blindfire deftly navigates an ethical minefield, and shows a society – alienated and divided from itself – that struggles to do the right thing even if it sometimes wishes and hopes to. “People want me to choose sides,” Nika tells her girlfriend. “I can’t.” Nell’s film inspires similar aporia in the viewer. For it asks us to judge, and even ends in a court trial – but the scenario it limns is too messy to be solved with a single, simple sentence. This is what makes Nell’s film, like its protagonist, seem so responsible: it weighs the evidence, asks the right questions, and follows through on the ramifications, even if they lead somewhere uncomfortable – which is much more than typically happens in police investigations into the ‘actual events’ that have inspired it.

strap: Michael Pell’s incendiary feature shows a white-on-black police shooting incident from the perspectives of different parties involved

 © Anton Bitel